Rabbi Yael Ridberg

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg
West End Synagogue

This morning I took a walk around the block. I walked because I feel as though the last 15 days our city, our nation, our community, has been sitting shiva. We have been participating in a communal mourning period. And so as is the tradition, upon getting up from shiva, a mourner should walk around the block as a way to re-enter the world.

Usually such a ritual, while initially jarring, carries comfort because there is the real
acknowledgement that indeed, life has continued “as usual.” But this morning, I was not jarred by my walk. Quite honestly, I felt practically the same afterwards. I realize now that it was because the difference between our collective house of mourning and the world “outside” feels very small.

Since we last came together, the American flag flying at Camp David has been returned to full staff, the sports teams have resumed their schedules; commercial television has returned, and the New Yorker has cartoons again.

If you follow the titles of the news programs, we have moved from “Attack on America”
to “America rises” to “A nation challenged” to “America United” and most recently, “we shall overcome.” These shifts are not lost on me in my own attempt to move through this crisis. Indeed, they have bouyed my spirits and have helped me to move forward.

I have felt that the air over New York has been saturated – not only with the smoke and ash of the towers – but with the prayers and dreams of thousands of people. It’s been hard to breathe. A yoga teacher of mine explained that it’s not surprise. For the diaphram has more nerve endings than any other organ, and when fear, pain, and anger strike, the diaphram hardens. That’s that “knot in your stomach” and the “tightness in your chest.”

What a familiar feeling. Six years ago when living in Jerusalem during the last wave of suicide bombings, I had a similar physiological reaction. My neck was stiff, my chest was tight, I was in a lot of pain. I found a poem by the late poet laureate of Israel
Yehudah Amichai – called the Ecology of Jerusalem The poem opened:

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
And dreams
Like the air over industrial cities,
It’s hard to breathe.

As I think about that time today, it is clear that tragically, all Americans understand more keenly today just what Israel has suffered over these many years. These last days so many journalists, commentators and civilians alike have noted that “this must be what Israeli life is like”; “Jerusalem has come home;” “we must learn to cope like Israelis.”

I have been trying. I have tried to resume my life with some normalcy. I wrote two different drafts of this sermon thinking I could still speak about Israel and my experiences there in August.

But the truth is, the harder I tried, the more difficult it was. I keep finding the words of Psalm 130 in my mouth. Mima’amakim keraticha ya -- out of the depths I call to you. I feel this evening I have entered through a gate – shaar bakasha – the gate of seeking, or request. I feel as though this gate is one we have all entered – and the emek, the depth, is the place where we ask of ourselves the hardest questions.

This Kol Nidre we are asking: What will be the response of our country to terror? How long will the recovery effort take? Will the families of the missing ever find solace? How will we move forward as a city?

The Psalmist speaks from a place echoing of despair. “Out of the depths I cry to you.” The place where we are crying to be heard. The place where we feel utterly alone – hopeful and hopeless at the same moment. How is that possible?

We feel hopeless in our needs, but hopeful for some answer, some movement, comfort.
It is true of course that we don’t have to wait to be utterly in despair to ask for what we need. But the capacity to ask, reminds us that even at the darkest of moments that the light of transformation can come through.

We know that our ability to ask for help and to respond before being asked, means that we are in relationship. In the Talmud, tractate Berachot we learn: One should not stand on a chair, on a footstool, or any place that is elevated when one says the amidah, but should stand in a place that is low and say it there – in keeping with that same the verse from Psalm 130, out of the depths I call to you.

So it isn’t only about the low emotional place we are in this kol Nidre – but there is a physical lowness as well – the one I feel when I stare at the hole in the skyline of New York City, and I feel so small.

In my parent’s synagogue in Maryland, above the ark is inscribed, dah lifnei mi atah omed. Recognize before whom/what you stand. More and more, I am beginning to see
myself as standing before all of the things that the terrorists sought to destabilize and demoralize: Our American civic life, our democratic freedoms, and the will to survive and thrive.

My generation has not known the need for such patriotism. I remember this feeling though – it had the same resonance when I I heard former President Bill Clinton say
The night Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated – shalom, haver.

But now I approach police and firefighters on the street and I thank them. I am mesmerized by the preaching of Rev. Calvin Butts quoting from the words of Emma Lazarus – We are tempest tossed, and we seek the lamp beside the golden door of freedom and democracy. We will get through this. And tears well up in my eyes.
I sing America the Beautiful and yes, I do feel proud.

And all of this while I also feel challenged by American policies and historic support for the very regimes we seek now to destroy. All the information in the paper about Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the suffering Afgani people, whether Arafat will be part of an anti-terrorism coalition or not – all of this confuses me and reminds me that we are still
in sheloshim – the 30 days after a death, when processing still takes a little longer than normal.

And on top of all of that I am horrified that mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and individual Arabs and Muslims are being attacked and harassed. Such scapegoating, such attacks, are deeply un-American, and they also violate a lesson of Jewish history: that we, who are have been victims of group hatred in Western civilization, must never stand by when it is aimed at others, and we must never give in to imputing to a group the actions of individuals.

And in the end, I am just not sure what kind of war this will be.

And so, like the Psalmist, Kiviti Adonai, kivta nafshi --my soul waits for God’s presence.
I am eager to know what the future will bring, I seek out an answer – even though I am not sure I will know if it is right.

What did my soul come here to do tonight? I feel the ground on which we are standing is holy. Made so by our seeking, our tears, our anger, and our resolve to respond.

The words of the avinu malkenu speak volumes:Aseh imanu tzedakah vahesed. May we come to know justice and compassion. May our re-entry into the world beyond grief and mourning be one that is inspired by our search for meaning, by our enduring faith, and by the coming together of our nation.

Adonai oz l’amo yiten,
Adonai yevarech et Amo bashalom
May we be strengthened and give strength,
May we continue to seek Peace and pursue it.

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